Orders of the Day — Housing (Walsall)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 am on 30th July 1981.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 3:30 am, 30th July 1981

I am raising this subject at this late hour because of a deep concern that is felt locally, and certainly by me, about Walsall's housing problems. I raise the matter because there is developing a housing crisis in the borough. No new contracts for council house building have been entered into by the local authority for the last two years. This is against the background of well over 9,000 on the council waiting list, which includes transfers.

I recently received a parliamentary written reply which stated that only one local authority housing start had taken place in the borough during 1980–81. There will be no housing starts at all during the current financial year. In its housing investment application for 1981–82, the council stated that it needed to provide 1,000 new dwellings annually to supply the accommodation needed and to keep up with demand. The figure now would be something in the region of 1,500. The Minister will know that for two successive years the council's housing investment programme application has been cut severely. That is why the council cannot carry out its proper functions as a housing authority.

In the housing investment programme that the council submitted in 1980–81 the figure was £22 million. The allocation received was £13 million. In the following year, 1981–82, the submission made by the local authority in its housing investment programme was for £20 million. That was reduced to £7½ million, a cut of two-thirds.

I must stress that it is not house building alone that is affected by the Government's cutbacks in housing expenditure. There are in my borough 5,700 older council properties. These are properties mainly built in the 1920s and 1930s. There is no disagreement that they are the properties that should be modernised, and quite a number of them have been, as is the case elsewhere. The council would like to be able to improve these properties to bring them up to present-day standards and provide amenities for the tenants. The council would like to complete the modernisation of these older properties by 1984–85. However, because of the way in which the housing investment programme in the past two years has been cut, it has been possible to start modernising in the current financial year only 118 of these properties.

It is understandable that the tenants of these older council properties, some of them my constituents, pay the rent increases with reluctance. The latest rent increase in the borough—as it is nationally—is the one recommended and virtually imposed by the Government of more than £3 a week. When the tenants come to see me about the state of their properties, they say "We are paying this rent increase of more than £3 a week, but when will our houses be modernised, and how much longer will it be before the properties in which we live can have the standards of present-day council accommodation?" That is a very good question, but it is not a matter that the council can resolve. It does not have the funds to do so.

The number of empty properties in the borough is lower than the average elsewhere, and every effort is made by the council to reduce it. As there are elsewhere, there are the difficult-to-let and more unattractive types of dwelling.

But, in case the Minister intends to dwell on the subject, I should point out that some of the empty properties are being used for decanting or for homeless emergencies. Perhaps the point should also be made that some of the properties are empty because of the lack of money to improve them for letting purposes. Some repair and maintenance housing work is also being held up because of the cut back in the last two years in the housing investment programme. There is other work such as rewiring and reroofing which the council is not able to carry out.

It is also not possible for the council in present circumstances to provide many improvement grants to home owners. Again, that is a reflection of the housing problem to which I am referring. The Walsall council would also like to be able to spend some money on improving the attractiveness of a number of older council estates.

With a waiting list of more than 9,000, it is understandable that the housing department is under mounting pressure from a number of the people waiting to be housed. Between 65 and 70 per cent. of the letters that I receive from constituents and of the complaints of the people who see me at my surgeries concern housing matters. Some want transfers. They live with children in high-rise accommodation and perhaps have done so for a good number of years. They want transfers to houses with gardens or to ground floor flat accommodation. There are young married couples in the borough who are not in a position to buy their own homes. They cannot get mortgages; they have not the means. They rely on the local authority to provide them with accommodation. Such young couples, sometimes with children, are living with their in-laws or parents, or living in digs. They want to be able to resolve their housing problem, and the only way will be if they can be offered accommodation by the local authority.

I am really asking that the council should be allowed to carry out its proper housing responsibilities. At the moment, it is not in a position to do so, because it cannot build. There are no new contracts being entered into. It cannot modernise more than a handful of properties. Some maintenance and repair work cannot be carried out. It is a borough where it has been recognised for some time that there is a serious housing problem. It was designated as a housing stress area. I hope that I shall not be told that the council can use funds from other services to supplement the housing investment programme, because that simply is not possible. There is no money from other services that could be used for the purpose.

The council, like other local authorities, is now submitting its housing investment programme for 1982–83. It does so in the belief—I hope without t justification—that instead of providing the allocation that is needed, there will be yet another cutback for the next financial year. We have already had two severe cutbacks. I hope that there will not be another cutback in 1982–83.

About 15 or 16 months ago, I invited one of the Minister's colleagues in the Department to see the housing and environmental problems that we face in our borough. It was in March 1981. The Minister came, and we took him on a coach trip around the borough. He said that he recognised the formidable housing and environmental problems that were facing Walsall council. It is all very well to say that one recognises the problems, but will the council be given the means to deal with those problems and carry out its housing functions and responsibilities?

I do not raise this matter simply to ventilate a constituency problem. I should not have done so had I not been convinced, first, that there is a serious housing problem in the borough in that the council cannot carry out its housing functions properly and, secondly, that the responsibility lies with the Government, in that proper allocation is being withheld from the local authority.

I hope that the local authority's submission for 1982–83 will be treated in a different manner from its two previous applications. The Government's policy is to encourage the selling of council houses. I have said before, and perhaps I shall be forgiven for saying again, that I only wish that the Government would show as much concern about seeing that local authorities build and provide accommodation as about selling off council houses. Tenants in high-rise blocks of flats, particularly mothers living perhaps on the ninth or twelfth floor, will have to wait longer for a transfer when houses are sold off. However, that is the present Government's policy, and it has been approved by Parliament. So be it.

However, I hope that the Government and the Ministers concerned will understand the housing problems in my borough and, instead of denying the council the opportunity to get on with its job, provide it with the funds and the means to do so. That is why I have raised the matter today.